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A Black Hills Roundup

Group travel leaders would be an excellent focus group if Rapid City, South Dakota, ever tested new marketing taglines for this city that is the hub for exploring the attraction-filled Black Hills region.

“Rapid City … the Active City” would get considerable support because tour leaders know that this city of about 75,000 residents offers many ways to deliver highly participatory diversions — and that’s even before venturing nearby to internationally known destinations such as Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Badlands National Park and Devils Tower National Monument.

You can launch a Black Hills tour on the City View Trolley, a Visit Rapid City vehicle that takes a 90-minute roll past numerous landmarks (among them are giant concrete reptiles at Dinosaur Park, a replica of a Norwegian stave church, and the Skyline Drive and Wilderness Area). It operates from Memorial Day through Sept. 30.

Once oriented, your group can disperse to explore the City of Presidents, a collection of bronze statues of America’s CEOs that adorn street corners throughout downtown. The project began in 2000 and was a catalyst that helped make downtown Rapid City a true destination and great for people who enjoy a good walk.

Visit Rapid City offers a City of Presidents scavenger hunt, which is a fun way for groups to organize some friendly competition. One tactic is to see who can find targeted items first (which president is feeding birds; which is holding a cigar?), and a more participatory one is to have a post-hunt photo show to see who took the best presidential selfie. Someone might win with a photo of a lesser- known president such as Millard Fillmore, William Howard Taft or Franklin Pierce. All the statues have personality.

Main Street Square is the likely place for a group to reunite. This enticing space is a private sector endeavor that transformed an unappealing urban parking lot into a focal point of city activity.

If you time your tour well, your clients can enjoy a Moonlit Movie Night, music concerts on summer Thursday evenings, a cruiser car show, the Bierbörse Festival or any of scores of other special events.

Rapid City Activities

After a City of Presidents walk or a Main Street Square festival, two fixed-site attractions that are quite different from each other are nearby — the Journey Museum and the Black Hills Escape Rooms. Both deliver doses of regional history and culture but with different methods.

The Black Hills Escape Rooms delve into pop culture entertainment with five themed rooms for subsets of your tour group to try. One has participants try to capture Wild Bill Hickok’s murderer, while another is a challenge to get out of a haunted bed and breakfast in Deadwood. In the silly category is one that involves zombie prairie dogs.

The Journey Museum is more staid but imminently worthwhile. It examines the region’s geology, paleontology, archeology, pioneer history and Native American culture. You can deepen your group’s appreciation of Native American culture with time at the Prairie Edge Trading Post, a Native American art gallery.

Prairie Edge is about top-notch art and educating visitors about the culture of the Northern Plains Indians. You’ll not find an art gallery anywhere with a more compelling story.

Outdoor Campus-Rapid City offers perhaps unexpected activities for groups. The facility is a project of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, and groups are welcome to view exhibits about the state’s wildlife, see what’s swimming in a 4,600-gallon aquarium, walk more than 1.5 miles of nature trails and admire archers testing themselves on a 14-station archery course. With planning, the staff can book special programs for groups.

“We encourage groups to check out the Outdoor Campus,” said Shelby Solano, a destination specialist with Visit Rapid City.

Monumental Experiences

Twenty-five miles away and an always-anticipated itinerary component is the region’s most photographed destination — Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The gigantic faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln represent the birth, growth, development and preservation of the United States.

Visiting the monument never gets old, and there always are ways to experience it differently. In the warm-weather visitation months, ranger talks on many topics begin almost hourly on the Grand View Terrace, and the Sculpture Studio Talk highlights how sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his team of 400 carvers did their work from 1927-1941.

Earl Perez-Foust, program manager for interpretation and education, advises visitors to attend the daily programs from indigenous presenters. They use dance, art and stories to explain the Native American culture that long predated European/American contact.

The straight-ahead view of the carvings is impressive, but burning off a few calories on the Presidential Trail Loop (0.9 miles and 422 stairs) delivers different perspectives. Another short trail that gets much less traffic is the Blackberry Trail, a mile-long moderately strenuous walk.

Just 15 miles way, work continues on another gigantic mountain carving. It is the Crazy Horse Memorial, described as the world’s largest mountain carving. The campus also includes the Indian Museum of North America, the Laughing Water Restaurant and a “Legends in Light” laser light show.

More to Explore

If Crazy Horse presents mountain theater, tiny Deadwood (population of fewer than 1,200) delivers street theater. Cowboy reenactors stage shootouts in the streets; gambling halls (real and quite legal) spice things up; history tours tell real stories. With a history that includes Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and a gold rush, Deadwood doesn’t have to make up stories to entertain you.

More placid recreation/entertainment is nearby on the Michelson Trail, a 109-mile-long rails-to-trails route through the Black Hills National Forest. Outfitters can organize bicycle rides of manageable lengths to see some of the trail’s 100 railroad trestles and four rock tunnels.

Filling up a Black Hills itinerary is no problem. The menu of attractions and activities includes cave tours (Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument); a steam locomotive ride on the 1880 Train; watching paleontologists at work at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs; roaming with the buffalo (actually riding among them on a Jeep tour) at Custer State Park; and enjoying a doughnut and a jackelope ride at the kitschy, but always delightful, Wall Drug Store.

For a bonus, stray into Wyoming for a 1.3-mile walk around Devils Tower, America’s first national monument and a memorable movie site from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”